‘Heartbreaking and enraging’: Gemma Chan calls for official UK apology to Chinese seamen

  • British Asian actor Gemma Chan recently penned an essay about her father’s life as a Chinese seaman working for the British merchant navy.
  • The 39-year-old actor touched on the hardships her father experienced, drawing comparisons to the abuse other Chinese seafarers endured under the British in the 1940s.
  • Chan learned that her father was instrumental in fighting for his fellow crew members’ rights during his maiden voyage as a seaman.

“Eternals” star Gemma Chan recently wrote a heartfelt essay about her Chinese seaman father after learning about the hardships that seafarers like him endured under the British in the 1940s.

In her piece, which was published in The Guardian on Jan. 8, the 39-year-old actor wrote about the sacrifices her father made, working “for years on ships – mostly oil tankers – at sea for months at a time” and sending “money home to pay for his siblings’ school fees.”

Following a memorable dinner with her family last year, Chan was reminded of her father’s “Golden Rule” that nothing goes to waste, “which applies equally to food, clothes, household items, cars – everything really.” She shared that in their household, they use things “until they break,” and “if they can be mended, they will be mended, but rarely will anything be thrown away.” Chan also recalled the love she and her sister received from their father through “small acts of devotion.”

What she found hard to understand was her father’s “obsession with education, his aversion to waste of any kind, his insistence that we finish every bit of food on our plates; and his constant reminders not to take anything for granted. It was because he knew what it was like to have nothing.”

Chan’s father was the third of six children of an impoverished single-parent family in Hong Kong. Her grandmother took on three jobs, and her earnings were barely enough to support their family and secure a decent home. “At one point they were made homeless when the block of flats burned down,” she shared.

According to Chan, her father’s plight came to mind after she read an article published by The Guardian about Britain’s forced deportation of Chinese seamen who the government claimed to be “undesirable.”

Chan wrote that these seamen “had helped keep the UK fed and fueled on highly dangerous crossings of the Atlantic (approximately 3,500 vessels of the merchant navy were sunk by German U-boats, with the loss of 72,000 lives).” 

She also mentioned that the surviving men who “married and started families with British women in Liverpool” were sent back to East Asia in secret and without warning. “Many of their wives never knew what happened to them, and their children grew up believing they had been abandoned,” she added. 

The article left Chan in tears. She found it “heartbreaking and enraging” that the seamen have yet to receive an official apology, while their plight has yet to be officially acknowledged.  

Chan would later have a long conversation with her father about his own experience in the merchant navy. While on his first voyage at sea, Chan’s father discovered how differently the white British officers and crew members were treated compared to the Chinese workers. 

Representing other Chinese crew members on board, he complained to the shipping company’s superintendent about how they were employed under a separate category that forced them to work longer periods at sea, with lower wages and fewer benefits than what their white British counterparts received.

“Dad told them he just wanted equal treatment,” Chan said. “As a result, he and the others who protested were allowed to fly back home with holiday pay.”

She noted that her father’s experience mirrored the plight of the deported Chinese seamen who were deemed “undesirable” for fighting for better pay and benefits. 

Chan is now hoping that such “the wrong done to those men and their families” and the “terrible act of state-sanctioned racism” will officially be acknowledged one day. “I hope that the surviving children get the answers and justice they deserve and that they can find peace,” she added. 

Chan’s essay can also be found in the upcoming book “East Side Voices”, which is set to release on Jan. 22.

Featured Image via British Vogue

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